Sunday, July 25, 2010
Book review: Alcoholism and motherhood
Author explores the role of addiction within her own family
Mary Karr's third memoir moves beyond her early years of sexual abuse and teen years of drug addiction to talk as an adult about getting drunk and getting sober, becoming a mother by letting go of a mother, and learning to write by learning to live.
Reviewed by Anne Shaver
"I keep getting drunk," Mary Karr writes in "Lit." "There's no more interesting way to say it."
"Lit" is Karr's story of alcoholism and recovery, of human foibles and salvation. It is the latest memoir from the best-selling Karr, author of "The Liars' Club" and "Cherry."
The book begins where her last memoir left off: Karr is 17 years old and beginning college, following her dream of one day becoming a poet.
Karr spends her young adulthood like a fish out of water. At college, she is surrounded by students who had read great literature as teenagers and who had studied and vacationed in Europe. In her 20s she meets another poet whom she will eventually marry, a Harvard graduate from a family so wealthy their meals are served by a maid.
It is alcohol that helps her navigate the new worlds she encounters.
"Anything worth doing could be undertaken later," Mary Karr writes of her binge-drinking years. "Paint the apartment, write a book, quit booze, sure: tomorrow. Which ensures that life gets lived in miniature. In lieu of the large feelings -- sorrow, fury, joy -- I had their junior counterparts -- anxiety, irritation, excitement."
Karr explores the role of addiction within her own family.
During a trip home during college, she is riding in the truck with her father when he offers her a swig of liquor.
Years later, her mother turns up stoned at her wedding rehearsal. Her stepbrother, Tex, is in recovery.
Karr struggles as she faces her alcoholism.
Her story is uniquely her own, but it could also be the story of anyone seeking to overcome an addiction.
She sets rules for herself, such as no drinking outside her apartment. She gives up drinking while she is pregnant but starts again after her mother tells her beer will help her breast-feed: "Within weeks, I stop breast-feeding, partly because I know three or four or five beers could affect Dev's milk supply."
She makes promises to herself: "I -- once more, with feeling -- take the pledge to quit drinking. Cross my heart. Pinky swear to myself. This is it, I say, the last night I sit here."
She fails, over and over: "In February I decide I'm under too much stress to quit booze cold turkey." Karr joins Alcoholics Anonymous but is skeptical of the spiritual aspect.
She refuses to pray, and continues to struggle with drinking: "But I didn't share my difficulties, and I didn't pray, and a month later, I got drunk."
Here is where "Lit" takes a turn for the religious.
Karr becomes more desperate and finally begins praying.
Her prayers at first are a simple "keep me sober" in the morning and "thanks" at night. But, almost miraculously, positive things begin to happen.
Finances are tight for Karr, her husband and child, but a week after she begins praying, she receives a $35,000 poetry prize that she hadn't applied for.
At the ceremony she is invited to, she is surrounded by alcohol.
She heads to the bathroom and prays.
When she comes out, she sits down to dinner and meets a literary agent who listens to her family stories and solicits a memoir, which will go on to become the bestselling "The Liars' Club."
The formerly agnostic Karr slowly becomes a believer.
What makes Karr's memoir better than most is her multi-layered approach.
This is more than a story about one person's recovery. It is also a story about complicated family ties, relationships, career and finding God.
Karr pursues each theme with the same level of intensity. Her writing is raw and shows a search for truth, no matter how difficult.
Karr is a brilliant memoirist who isn't afraid to dig deep into her own life.
This is a book for anyone who has been affected by addiction or anyone who enjoys a true story of redemption.